The Federal Aviation Administration said Friday that it would be an “unwarranted invasion” of privacy to acknowledge whether the agency plans to take action against two air traffic controllers involved in a November incident in which pilots were unable to contact the tower.
But the agency for the first time confirmed when the controllers were tested for drug use — four days after the incident, a detail Boise officials had also sought to confirm with the FAA.
In response to a public records request from the Statesman, the agency said no disciplinary action had been taken so far.
“With respect to any proposed discipline, lacking explicit consent from the individual(s) or an overriding public interest, even to acknowledge the existence of such records pertaining to the individual(s) could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of their personal privacy,” wrote Annie B. Andrews, an assistant human resources administrator for the FAA in Washington, D.C.
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Beyond that, “the FAA does not comment on personnel matters, including discipline any employees receive,” said Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA’s Pacific Division, who is based in Los Angeles.
He did say the agency has concluded its inquiry.
“The investigation found that one of the two controllers on duty fell asleep after the other controller had temporarily left the facility. Both controllers were drug tested after the event, and the test results were negative. Both controllers returned to duty shortly after the event occurred,” Gregor said.
The findings corroborate observations from Boise police officers who entered the tower in the early morning hours of Nov. 19. However, police said the controller who left the tower without authorization smelled of marijuana, according to police reports released in December following a public records request from the Statesman.
The controllers provided urine samples for drug testing on Nov. 23, Gregor said. The tests screened for tetrahydrocannabinol (commonly known as THC, the active ingredient in marijuana), cocaine, phencyclidine (PCP), opiates and amphetamines.
According to Quest Diagnostics, a company that provides employer drug screenings, urine tests typically detect drug usage from 1 to 3 days before the test was administered. The testing window for THC, which is fat-soluble, does depend on if the person is a frequent user, in which case the window can be longer.
On the morning of the incident, two Air St. Luke’s helicopter pilots were unable to contact anyone on the tower radio frequencies between 2:30 a.m. and 2:40 a.m. One of the helicopters was coming to the airport from the Downtown Boise hospital, and the other was departing from the airport.
The pilots initiated alternative procedures, which led them to announce their movements over the radio to alert other aircraft that might be flying overhead.
Four police officers responded to the tower after an airport operations official was unable to reach the controllers by business and emergency telephones and radios.
One officer flashed his spotlight at the tower, turned on his patrol car’s red and blue lights, sounded his siren and used an air horn but was unable to draw a controller’s attention.
A man pulled into the lot, identified himself as an air traffic controller and told one of the officers he had spoken to the controller in the tower by phone within the past five minutes. The officer doubted the story, noting in his report that no one else had been able to reach the controller.
The second controller, who has not been publicly identified, allowed the officers to go inside the tower. They reported that controller smelled of marijuana and one officer described the man’s demeanor as “slow and confused as to what was going on.”
The controller in the tower, whose name was blacked out in police reports, was described by one of the officers as “dazed and confused.” He said he hadn’t heard any radios or phones and later admitted to falling asleep.
No incidents were reported as a result of the failure of pilots to reach the tower, which handles takeoffs and landings for planes at the Boise Airport and at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana.